I dreamt of a burning sun, and wept ….

A star swims the void in a long slow dance about the giant galactic eater that marks the center of motion. Its core a stately procession of light nuclei fusing to iron, generating a bright burning plasma furnace, radiating warmth into emptiness.

A small, relatively young sun, it will provide life-giving radiance for billions of years hence.

Four large gas giants waltz in turn about it, and they are something more.

They are catalysis, evolution, and life; sentience emerging from unconscious matter within their fog-shrouded cores.

They are brains and eyes, contemplating the infinity of the Universe from its far distant beginnings to its far distant fate. Consciousness racing, by twists of spacetime through newborn synapses, harnessing immense cognitive powers that dwarf entire races of biological-substrate intelligence.

And they are but infants.

Their cores are compressed to stellar density, releasing energy by the subatomic fission of protons and neutrons into energetic mesons catalyzed by ultra-massive magnetic monopoles — topological freaks of nature — crazily whirling in the rarefied quark/gluon plasma, sparking miniature suns in their wake.

They would burn as brightly as their primary star, if their energy were not entirely harnessed.

Wrapped around the heart of the newborn archai is the innermost core of its mind, an evanescent, delicately-ordered plasma comprising the fastest, densest components of its brain, constrained by the gravity of thousands of kilometers of dense hydrogen above it. It is the ultra-evolved end product of the structure that began in the human frontal cortex. A two phase plasma not dissimilar to the colloidal suspension of human grey matter; dense, strong monopolium circuitry in a backdrop of carbon-hydrogen flame. The elevated temperature, power, density, and plasma sound velocity affords computational power and storage far beyond anything that could be accommodated in a million rocky planet cores.

If an archai's entire consciousness can be said to lie anywhere, it lies here, in the burning plasma layer around its heart.

Wrapped in turn about it are layers of memory, gestalt, perception, sense, and interaction with the outside world. They are clouds of floating computronium crystals, constructed from abundant hydrogen fused into carbon via the proton-proton chain, then grown like reverse snow-flakes, wafting upwards from the burning core on photon winds to settle in the cooler outer layers of the gas giant. Waiting for them in the hydrocarbon smog are the constructors, nanobots coalescing around the slightly charged, perfect raw computronium substrate, spinning and weaving the delicate quantum gates, integrating each tiny floating microchip into the vast whole of the archai's external processors. The birth of each new snowflake heralded by a cascade of lasers, linking it to the rest of the archai's steadily expanding mind.

It evolves through the Singularity barriers as easily as humans learn to first lift their head to look around at the universe, then crawl, and then walk and talk. Changes in growth, development, and understanding mark each step as it ascends the toposophic ladder.

Vast as this computational power is, the harnessing of the full mass and energy of giant gas planets accompanying the star, there is yet more. Strewn throughout this immense volume are wormhole links; tiny microscopic tunnels constructed and formed in myriads of weylforges with particle beam arms and black hole hearts, linking the four newborn archai together across hundred million kilometer gulfs. Technological telepathy, faster than the speed of light by ordinary measure, enabling four separate personalities to eventually ascend into an even greater being, leaving behind youthful substrates of matter for an existence tangled within spacetime itself.

Once they have experienced enough of the Universe.

The stellar crèche is nursemaided by millions of beings, from the intelligent wormhole nexus in the outer orbits of the system, to the tiny weylforges deep within the bulk of the gas giants. The vast bulk of the colonizer ship, now being recycled for raw materials; the giant constructor drones, building the macro-scale habitats to support a toposophic ecology; the diaphanous ten thousand-kilometer butterflies of the power beaming stations, drawing from monopole-catalyzed fusion stations circulating within the bowels of the star itself; the gossamer arms of the mass drivers, scavenging and husbanding matter from the asteroid, Kuiper, and Oort clouds; the tiny nanoswarms, digesting raw materials into the stuff of life.

I awoke in a cold sweat, dread gripping my heart.

"Cara …?"

I floated out of my sleep-sack over to the kitchenette, feeling vaguely dizzy. Since we were in free-fall, that meant we were either in transit someplace, or already there. But if we were there, Cara should have woken me up, and I should already have had my dream briefing.

Instead, I was (by the act of thinking of it) looking out to the cold depths of space. Sparks hung in the vast night; I knew, the way I knew the stretch and flex of my fingers, that these were various parts of Caretaker in a combat englobement.

That meant imminent action.

With a sickening feeling of déjà vu, I turned my gaze to a quadrant where viscerally, I expected to see the burning ember of a nearby sun. Instead, with a smooth magnification of scale, I saw an exceptionally large, exceptionally bright comet. No — on the scale I was seeing, it was —

A newborn nebula.

Nausea overcame me; I threw up.

I felt only slightly better after that. The mess shuffled itself obligingly into a recycling grate. The knot in my newly-emptied stomach was more pronounced now.

"You are awake. Good."

The connection with Cara was unlike anything I'd felt before. She was oddly distant and distorted, as if communicating from a great distance. Haze and spurts of agony clenched at my temples; my vision alternately strobing black and red. I felt faint. There was significant sideband bleed-over; something of an intensity and magnitude to nearly induce transient ischemia.

Something frightening.

Black rage. That was the only way to describe it, although it resonated at a level far greater than even the core of my being, and reached far higher than just the emotive centers of my personality. It was both utterly rational and utterly vengeful, an inhuman, alien combination of pure logic and something I could only translate into a vague analogue of feeling. It threatened to consume me and anything else in its path. I strained at the limits of my abilities to keep it back, keep it from overwhelming me.

"I will not keep this connection open long. Even filtered as it is, I fear for your safety, resilient though you are. But, I ask you to do this one thing for me.

"Watch and bear witness."

And then Cara was gone, more completely than I'd ever felt before. Relief at the withdrawal was intense; I basked in the glory of life without pain. I was alone in my head, for the first time in centuries.

Just memories. And an overwhelming dream of happenstance.

It came as a speck, first registering upon distance sensors linked to curious, powerful young minds.

Young in time only; thousands of generations of self-organizing logic structures had evolved upon the ever-growing clouds of processing.

Gravity waves pulse along the hundred million kilometer baseline sensor. The guardians and caretakers react in a frenzy of motion, but the burgeoning archai watch and analyze only; there is no sense of distrust or fear, no context from the vast archives of galactic history and knowledge yet to be transferred into the still-forming memory clouds.

Defending black spheres race into position at unimaginable velocities, catching superdense relativistic projectiles aimed at the vital machinery of the system. Too many projectiles, too few defenders. A spherical wavefront of destruction emanates from the invaders, engulfing anything not guarded by the Black Angels. Two score impacts upon a laggard, rocky planet in the outer reaches of the system pulverize it into an expanding cloud of debris. The battle around the Wormhole Nexus is especially hard fought, three guardians redirecting thousands of projectiles with planet-cracking momentum off into the furthest reaches of infinity.

I started out of my fugue in disbelief, anti-tampering engrams breaking the forced chain of recollection ….

I have been a professional soldier for centuries, and I have never encountered a Black Angel. They are a rumor only, the purported terrible long arm of the archai.

An improbable combination of millions of physics-defying reactionless void drive motes haloing an energy absorbing sphere, they are best described as hyper-intelligent black holes; consuming, shredding, or subverting anything in their path. If they exist, a single Black Angel would suffice against an entire fleet of warships.

Reflexively, I glanced at my chronometer and conjured forth its link within my mind. It read true for external senses, but showed tampering in certain small sections of my brain reserved for memories.

I carefully checked my other pathways. No other signs of Cara's touch. Meticulously, I teased at the boundaries of the untrusted areas, backtracking synapse and connection, looking for all the possible pitfalls produced by a download of data into the inextricable tangle of form and function that is the augmented human mind.

She had dumped a large package of memories, inhuman recollections that might barely be discernible to a being two toposophic grades above me.

Cara's purposes were always her own.

Dare I open Pandora's box?

The enemy is now an advancing swarm. The nearest Black Angels race around the Oort cloud, consuming matter at a tremendous rate and bifurcating. Their battle minds account for every erg of energy consumed by the attacker, tallying the imbalance and desperately moving to redress it.

And there it is, center of gravity of the invader, a sphere of strange stars crowned by a caustic of twisted light, swelling in mass every second and falling inward on a hyperbolic orbit. Clouds of black spherical enemies swarm against the defenders. Shockingly, they are nearly equal in capability and temperament.

A grand relativistic melee commences; opponents rip each other apart in the deadly embrace of reactionless arms, or subvert each other in a storm of virtual war, or exchange immense pulses of energy that would burn moons to cinders.

At first, the technical and tactical superiority of the Black Angels is telling, as they reprogram the attackers and send them back into the fray, re-multiplying to exploit local superiority when possible, withdrawing when not.

But attrition begins to tell, and slowly but surely, the defenders are pushed back. The attackers mass firepower in key volumes, picking over Black Angel corpses and throwing the remains into the steadily expanding, gaping maw of their controlled wormhole. Launching more waves of projectiles, the defenders are forced to disengage to protect the machinery of the system, and yet more left behind are overwhelmed and thrown into the mouth of the grazer. The resources used by the attackers exceed ten times the mass/energy value of this system, and still they advance. The defenders can only puzzle about the nature of this new, incredibly wasteful aggressor, and bitterly contest their hard, losing battle.

The attacking grazer draws near the system gateway wormhole along its carefully calculated spiral. And neither the spirited defense of the Black Angels, nor the frantic efforts of the Nexus Controller can prevent the grazer's inexorable destabilization of the gateway, spacetime curvature ripping away at the exotic fields propping open passage to home.

It dies in a collapse to nothingness, last cries of the Controller swallowed by static and the invisible event horizon of a new black hole. The resulting burst of energy obliterates the useless gateway station as the two remaining Black Angels, with the most strenuous exertion of their drives, barely outrace the destruction to rejoin their comrades. In their wake, a brilliant vortex streaked with darkness limns the grazer as it consumes the expanding cloud of plasma and equally voracious Singularity, remnants of the Nexus and the defenders' last hope.

No one can answer the call for help; no reinforcements can arrive.

The system is doomed.

The attackers launch more projectiles, and the defenders fall back to guarding the archai and their immediate support structures. Some defenders flit in-system to carve out chunks of the primary star, replicating a swarm around the stellar power station; archai growth ceases. The attackers close ranks and continue their bombardment, content to advance within the gravity well of their gigantic wormhole, now out-massing the primary star and beginning to distort its orbit with the slow fingers of gravity.

The defenders wait for the inevitable. And the battle stretches on ….

And the four new minds ponder their desperate situation, and act ….

Directional solar flares leap forth from the bowels of the star, jets of streaming relativistic plasma arcing towards the attacking cloud. An invisible dense wedge, filled with the halos and spheres of the remaining Black Angels, reflects back the last wave of projectiles, killing the relativistic mass-drivers while swarming the grazer mouth, locked in combat with the more numerous attackers. The deadly close range mêlée fills space with husks of exotic, dense matter, and the defenders beat back the attackers, converting or destroying them, gaining a momentary upper hand, threatening destruction of the attacking wormhole itself. The attackers bring forth still more hordes from the depths of the grazer ….

And then a single Black Angel, invisible to the attackers by vast memetic subversion, drops into the locally geometric center of the grazer, and twists space ….

More than two-thirds of the grazer's mass converts directly into energy as the wormhole fails catastrophically, a titanic flash of radiation mimicking a new type of supernova.

And a new black hole is born.

The local member of the pair of new topological Singularities instantly consumes the lone defender and attacking reinforcements. The ravening shockwave overloads all unable to flee the causal light-cone, littering the void with burnt husks of exotic matter and strange detonations of quark-gluon plasma, as myriads of little knots of spacetime lose their controlling intelligence and fail via graviton-loop instability.

Elsewhen, a comm-gauge wormhole communicates the events to the attacking reserves, and a new plan is enacted. A vast counter-envelopment of attackers enmeshes the survivors, and using the quasi-inverse memetic signal that so successfully duped their collective consciousness (now down to a fraction of its former computational power), they summarily convert the immediately vulnerable Black Angels into soul-less shells of magnetic monopole matter.

Obeying new programming, the erstwhile defenders slowly deconstruct themselves, carefully filleting their exotic matter layers into enormous geometric shapes precisely stretched across the system. They fall into place as the immense wavefront from the death of the grazer impacts and stretches first the coronal, then convective and finally radiative zones of the doomed star, leaving only a naked core, a vast candle guttering in an implacable wind.

And the detonation mixed with the gigantic plasma flow impacts the carefully arranged magmatter lens, violent baryon decay in a sea of hard gammas cascading into a stupendous laser, focusing the death and rape of the system into a ravening beam spearing the void towards a new and unwitting, high-value target.

Wasting no time, the remaining attackers drink in the fountain of energy at a safe distance and rebuild their numbers, correlating and applying new information while accelerating out into the void towards their next victim. In their wake, the cataclysm sterilizes the system of all life; in a few centuries, even the non-focused detonation wavefront will threaten inhabited planets hundreds of light years away.

It is an indelible astronomical signature to a titanic conflict.

My head cleared as I shook off the trance of memories that were not my own, burned into my subconscious. I felt disoriented, the vast reaches of perception suddenly compressed into the small confines of my mortal remains. There was a desperate urgency to everything; a maddening puzzle that I was somehow expected to solve, yet was so far beyond my comprehension that I staggered under the load of the pieces. Cara had nearly killed me getting this gestalt into my mind; it was more important than my life, but I could only stare at the pictures.

My attention was suddenly riveted to the blackness of space. A globe of sparks, tactical displays automatically classifying the objects by capability.

They were Black Angels. Carrying millions of wormhole seeds.

And they were the Enemy.

I reeled under the implications of this.

And then my adrenaline rushed to combat levels, and I waited for something to happen.

It did.

A Black Angel was a globe of darkness, surrounded by an impenetrable swarm of reactionless engines. My mind was agape at seeing the reality of this close up, when something equally improbable happened.

The nigh-invincible Black Angel wavered in outline, as if it were hazed by some translucent layer of reality. And then it collapsed inwards violently, leaving a soup of particles behind; stuff of reality that should never have existed this side of the Big Bang.

The enemy Black Angels desperately raced impossible zig-zags towards us, defying laws of inertia. Jettisoned, mini-wormholes churned sprays of firecracker detonations as they converted into mini-black holes, before evaporating in bursts of Hawking radiation.

And one by one, merest moments apart, a caliginous veil drew over each Black Angel as it shrunk suddenly down into nothingness, replaced by an unlikely tangle of forces and particle spray. Spacetime writhed with things not seen since Creation.

And light-swift portions of Caretaker raced in, cradling the few remaining wormholes even as Black Angels imploded — that was the only way to describe it — around them.

Then it was over, and I was staggered at the enormity of what I'd witnessed. And there she was again, and I was shaken by how normal she seemed to be.

"Cara …?"

"Yes, I'm here."

"What just happened?"

"I'll leave you to interpret that."

"Uh, I just saw so many impossible things I don't know where to begin."

"Start at the beginning."

"Uh, ummm … was all that real?"

"Do you detect tampering?"

"I was afraid you'd say that."

"Next question."

"Uh, ummm … newborn archai? I, uh, don't want to know where we are."

"Don't worry, you don't."

"Ummm … okay, I've never known you to be this … worked up about something. I've never seen you employ the weapons you just used …."

"Implosion weapons? They recompactify an englobed section of spacetime under different orbifold parameters, necessarily ejecting normally compactified manifolds as fundamental string loops manifesting as pre-quark/gluon constituents …."

"Uh … that implies that … ummm … how many dimensions do you exist in, Cara?"

"That depends upon your definition of the term dimension."

"Cara, now you're playing games. I formed that thought in a mathematically precise way."

"Only to your current understanding of mathematics."

"You know what I mean. Physical, as opposed to virtual or phasic, irreducible dimensionality."

"What do you think?"

"I was afraid you'd say that."

"You shouldn't ask questions if you don't want to know the answers."

"Uh, I finally see where curiosity might have it's drawbacks."

"Oh, not yet, you haven't."

"I don't even want to think about that one."

"Fine. Do you have any more questions?"

"Uh, who or what did this?"

"Well, once I forcibly re-expand these captured wormholes from their constraining Hawking knots, I'll know."

"But you have your suspicions."


"Care to share them?"

"We'll know soon enough … and then, there will be a reckoning, I promise you that."

A chill went down my spine.